The two women vying for Catalan leadership

Barcelona (AFP) –


Two women are vying for the leadership of Catalonia in regional elections on Thursday that they hope will prove a decisive moment in a bitter independence crisis.

Here are profiles of Marta Rovira and Ines Arrimadas, the leading candidates of the separatist and pro-unity blocs -- each vying to become Catalonia's first female leader.

- Rovira: Passionately pro-independence -

With her ERC party's leader Oriol Junqueras in jail over his role in the independence bid and axed regional president Carles Puigdemont in Belgium, Rovira, 40, has become the separatist camp's most active campaigner.

It is unclear how she would govern if her leftist ERC party wins the crucial vote.

She would likely be tasked with running the day-to-day affairs of government, yet she could still be jailed over her own role in the region's banned October 1 referendum.

The Supreme Court in Madrid earlier this month ordered authorities to expand a probe to target members -- including Rovira -- of a "strategic committee" allegedly put in place to achieve independence in Catalonia.

Born in the Catalan town of Vic, Rovira claimed after the referendum, without providing evidence, that the Spanish government had threatened "blood and deaths on the streets" if the secessionists declared independence.

Rovira's grandfather was mayor of a Catalan village when the region, like the rest of Spain, was under the iron rule of dictator Francisco Franco.

She was seen on television bursting into tears when Junqueras and other separatists were remanded in custody on November 2 on charges of sedition, rebellion and misuse of public funds.

Despite their differences, Rovira commended her rival in a recent televised debate for "breaking a glass ceiling in politics" by running for the top regional post, to which Arrimadas responded: "You are a brave woman."

- Arrimadas: inclusive approach -

Born in the southern Spanish town of Jerez de la Frontera and married to a Catalan former politician from the separatist camp, 36-year-old Arrimadas has quickly risen through her centrist party's ranks since she joined Ciudadanos in 2011.

Likened by the Guardian newspaper to French President Emmanuel Macron for successfully carving out a centrist path in a country long dominated by bipartisan politics, Arrimadas says the secessionists' bid to break away Catalonia is a "coup against democracy".

Branding her rivals' secessionist rhetoric "monothematic" and their nationalism "exclusive", the charismatic Arrimadas presents herself as a representative of all Catalans -- including those who migrated to the wealthy region from other parts of Spain in search of a brighter future.

She aims to lead with the backing of the ruling conservative Popular Party and the Socialists, and to focus on improving social services in Catalonia -- which, she claims, were ignored under Puigdemont.

Andres Rodriguez Benot, who teaches international law at the Pablo de Olavide University in Seville, shared with AFP an anecdote of when Arrimadas was a student there.

Describing Arrimadas as "brilliant" yet "reserved", Rodriguez Benot said a group of students falsely accused her of forging language certificates in order to obtain a scholarship.

Arrimadas reported the incident, and the university sanctioned the guilty students.

"She is a rigorous person who respects legality," he said. "With her, you can forget about the word corruption."